Anathasius Kircher, a 17th-century German Jesuit priest and scholar, had interests ranging from fossils to hieroglyphics to micro-organisms and volcanoes, was above all a master of expressing wonder at the natural world.
He proposed, among many other things, the idea of a parabolic horn, an amplification system for sound waves. In the illustration below, the sound waves are created by human voices. We do so like to hear ourselves talk. And we like to think we hear everything around us.
Parabolic amplification by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)
But consider all the sounds and songs we can’t hear without the help of other mechanisms, the technological great-grandchildren of Kircher’s giant seashell horns.
The low chirps and meows of sea turtles, which apparently have distinct songs for mating, laying eggs, and for setting off on their first ocean journeys. Turtle hatchlings were recently discovered to use vocalization to improve their odds of survival by migrating together, and they responded to vocalizations of adult females up to hundreds of miles away from their nesting beaches. If they could hear them over human-produced noise pollution, that is.
Here’s an incredible collection of animal sounds, the Macaulay Library, from around the world. I particularly like this haunting recording of a lone common loon.
Plants have been found to communicate with one another via sound frequencies – some even speculate that they use fungi networks in forest floors as sound switchboards.
A water-powered automatic organ by Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650)
There’s whistling lightning – not the cracks you might have heard during a storm, but very low frequency radio waves sent out by some (though not all) lighting strikes just before they burst. There’s an entire network devoted to listening for whistlers (listen here), which have also been found to be connected to volcanic eruptions.
And then there’s the music of the spheres – or at least, the sphere upon which we live, Earth. The rings of plasma which form part of the planet’s giant magnetosphere are bursting with radio waves, which produce a sound sometimes called Earth’s “chorus” (listen here).
Why do I mention all this?
Because I was thinking this morning, while listening to the dawn chorus of birds, about the fact that, even if it’s just out of our range, not necessarily intended for us and we can’t always hear it, there’s music all around.
Illustration of Earth’s plasma rings.